May Day’s Anarchist Tradition

Image Source: Eddy Tingles

Image Source: Eddy Tinguely (Image on right from: Black Westchester)

Baltimore, Maryland (TFC) – Though universally celebrated as a holiday for labor rights, few people understand the true roots of May Day and it’s continued relevance to the socio-economic scene in America today. Baltimore today and Chicago in 1887 seem worlds apart, but both were host to an immense dissatisfaction with the power structure of the time and it’s unjust treatment of the citizens within it’s influence. While it seems difficult to emerge from such tumultuous confrontation with any gains, the historical context of May Day could serve as a guide, demonstrating that even a biased media and a bloodthirsty state can’t sap a lively movement of it’s message.

Anarchists have always been troublesome for the established power structure, given their shared call for the abolition of all power structures. So when several labor and anarchist publications rallied for the 8 hour workday, the state arrived in force to shut the rallies down. While the crowd was dispersing, an explosion went off and police started shooting, which elicited a return volley from the crowd of armed anarchists. Several people were killed, including 7 police, and a group of anarchists with little or no connection were sentenced to death for the explosion. Widely accepted as martyrs for the movement, the few surviving defendants were acquitted 6 years later by then-governor John Peter Altgeld.

The parallels between the protests then and the protests now are difficult to ignore. In both cases, there was attendance in the tens of thousands, and in both cases, the media was used to spin the peaceful protesters as violent agitators based off of the actions of a violent minority. Both events involved suspected agent provocateurs– today’s crisis actors are yesterday’s Pinkerton Agency. In both situations, a systemically oppressed ethnic minority has been increasingly victimized and portrayed as senseless animals; in Baltimore it’s the disenfranchised African American youth, in Chicago it was the German and Bohemian working-class immigrants.

Dismissal of a movement based off it’s negative elements has been a tool of political hegemony for centuries, but through selective education, the vast majority of average citizens are poorly equipped to critically analyze a situation. We aren’t given the tools in school to decide what information is relevant and what isn’t, or even what’s factual and what’s not. When giant, bold headlines scream BALTIMORE DEVOLVES INTO CHAOS, LOOTING, that’s often the most impactful portion of the narrative that anyone who isn’t directly involved will take in. Their inability to adequately articulate the true motivations for these continued protests suddenly becomes moot, because the “violence really detracts from their message.”

The most stirring parallel is also the one that everyone following the ongoing conflict in Baltimore should keep deep in mind; It’s the people versus the state. These people aren’t protesting against racism, or classism, or capitalism. These people are protesting against a violent entity who they rightly see as their enemy. They are protesting against an occupying force. They are protesting against an aggressor. They are protesting against a hegemonic entity who has unjustly, for decades, profited off their continued disenfranchisement.

The Haymarket Affair wasn’t easy. People died for what they believed in, which was an opportunity for every person to flourish and find enrichment in life – not just a privileged few. Don’t let the media-industrial double-speak machine convince you that this is simply a violent outburst in our cities “rough neighborhoods,” like they tried to convince people in 1887 that the anarchists were simply a violent group of psychopaths who sought the destruction of all civilization. An incredible leader once said the media had “the power to make the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent.” That power relies on our involvement as a society. Will we decide to see through the systemic violence of the state that pervades all of our daily lives, or will we dissolve into a mutable mass of thoughtless consumption? That is entirely up to you.